Project Row Houses: An Interview with Rick Lowe
In this challenging interview with one of Houston’s most well known and brilliant artists, Rick Lowe (founder and director of Project Row Houses in Houston’s 3rd Ward) discusses his role as an artist in a complex collaboration, the differences between individual and collective expression, and the differences between artist communities and artists working within a community or specific neighborhood. Lowe also describes the various roles artists have taken at Project Row Houses including designing an installation in one of the historic row houses, doing a residency, or interacting more directly with the neighborhood and its residents.
Sasha Dela: Now that Project Row Houses (PRH) has been around for awhile, what are the direct effects you see it having on the community?
Rick Lowe: I would say that it is very complex. Some of the elements of PRH have changed my perception of art and art practice – how to make art and connect it to something. I think one of the most important things PRH has accomplished with its impact is to bring creativity into the lives of ordinary people and an ordinary neighborhood.
This is just a regular neighborhood with some old shotgun houses. But the idea of transforming those houses, and elevating them in a symbolic way, says to the rest of the community that it can be special, too, if you can figure out how to treat it that way, all the way down the line from the physical setting of the place to the people who that live here to the people that come here to visit. There are artists that come and work here just because of the nature of the context. There is the possibility that their work can actually impact somebody’s life, not just in an abstract way but in a more real, direct way. I think that kind of impact has been huge.
And there are more practical things – such as getting resources to support what we are doing as an art organization – that contribute to the impact of community ownership. One example is, between PRH and the PRH Community Development Corporation (CDC), we pretty much own about five blocks of property. This is important because, as long as this neighborhood is here, there are at least five blocks of property that this community owns which guarantees that it will have some say in how the resources in this community impact the people.
SD: In terms of PRH’s housing program, what are your thoughts about artists communities and about artists interacting with communities?
RL: The impact of having artists within this community, or within any community, can be shown in a number of ways.
There is a distinct difference between artists communities and artists that live in the community. In artist communities, the impact, or value, is between artist and art which is incredibly important for some artists and at different stages in their careers. While I have a deep appreciation and respect for artist communities (I’ve been a part of them and I’ve started some, too), what we do at PRH is a little different. It’s not an artist community – it’s about artists within a community. What we are doing at PRH is much more about the relationship between the artists and the other residents that live in the neighborhood.
All the classifications and categories we use on people often times work against the overall good or richness of life for example the category of a black artist or a female artist. Categorizing people in order to encourage a certain kind of participation can limit their impact in general. Similarly, when you categorize someone as an artist you also run the risk of limiting the value and richness they can bring to a situation as a citizen.
I understand how sometimes it’s extremely important for black people or Latino people or women to have their own groups to work toward certain things, and I understand how important it is sometimes for artists to have their own thing that they are working toward. But I think that if we allow ourselves to get trapped there and stay there, then we diminish the impact and the richness that we can bring to the overall picture.
And, so, the ways that we engage artists in our community is multi-layered. One way is that they are here working on a project in our Artist Projects Program through which we bring a group of artists here three times a year – one group is students and the other two are artists.
The underlying thing about our relationship with artists is that we try to diffuse hierarchy. There is a value to the “Artist” in our community, in the capital “A” kind of way and we to balance that with valuing the importance of the neighborhood artist – who is not an “Art World” artist, but they are an artist. We try to take it even further that that – we might even want to lose the term art altogether and just focus on “creative” people that are practicing creativity within our community. They may not be creating “art” objects but they are in the conversation certainly in the new language of “place making.” They make place.
And if I think about it long enough there is another level, a more individual level of artists we work with here. Jesse Lott, a long-time artist in the community, is an example. I consider him one of the founders of PRH and one of my mentors. His sense of what he does as an artist embodies all of what I’ve just said.
The impact of those particular roles of artists in our community is driven by the fact that art and creativity are symbols of what other people can aspire to. For me, the impact is real when we bring somebody to PRH that re-imagines one of these houses in a way that it inspires someone else here to think, “Maybe I could do that.” It’s about sharing with others the possibility of their ability to be creative in terms of making objects or however they want to use their creativity. I’ve watched things that are pretty mind-blowing.
For example, there is a lady who lives right across the street; she is kind of a recluse. When we started PRH, we never saw her. After seven or eight years of being here, we kind of realized there was somebody living there. Probably five or six years ago, she finally stepped out and came to an event that we were having. Over time, I’ve seen this person go from being a hermit with no sense of art in the “Art World” way, who really didn’t think of herself as a creative person, to becoming someone who has tapped into her creativity so much so that now she is rebuilding furniture.
A second way we engage artists is through what we call “incubation.” We provide spaces for them and their artwork with the opportunity to explore long term possibilities and, potentially, a ripple effect with the community. For example, Anyana McCloud’s created the project, La Botanica and out of that came Steffani Jemison’s “Book Club” which ultimately became part of the exhibition Alpha’s Bet is not Over Yet at the New Museum.
The third way that we engage artists is simply that we offer houses for artists to rent, where artists live in the community just as residents, as citizens.
One of the unusual ways that I like to talk about through which artists can make an impact on a community is the fact that they know the value of education and they are interested in educating themselves and others; in particular, many artists get degrees. When artists produce something it generally implies that there is a certain kind of learnedness, in other words that they had to learn something about how to produce their work. The reality is that there is no direct correlation between being learned and having a degree that equals a higher economic status.
Each of those roles are kind of different and they all have different impacts so, consequently, for our housing program it fits perfectly. We can have highly educated people in our low income housing because they are using their education for other things than pursuing money (an artist that qualifies as low income is only a little higher than the person who is on social welfare but there are still categorized as fairly low income). This means that we can have a community of residents that is diverse – maybe not so much economically but in terms of education. We have somebody like Robert Pruitt, a nationally recognized artist, living on our property with a Masters degree living next to someone who potentially never graduated high school.
The impact of PRH becomes hugely important when that sense and value of education is next door to other people who don’t have that kind of sensibility. It’s a value that we don’t know how to measure but we can see it and we can feel it. When you have people that can carry on a conversation about an art installation, they might say it’s weird but they have a context in which to talk about that weird thing.
SD: As PRH has developed, you’ve developed your role as a central creative person within the organization. Can you talk about how your role has changed your perception of what an artist – or creative person – can be? I’m curious about what works practically, in terms of being a visionary in the everyday.
RL: It was a huge shift for me and my practice to start thinking about collective expression as opposed to individual expression. And so how do you do that within the context of something like PRH?
I see my role at PRH evolving into, both philosophically and practically, the Joseph Beuys-ian idea of “social sculpture.” It’s funny, though, because I like to use that as a basis for what I do but I also know that it’s probably very different from what Beuys thought social sculpture would be.
In practical terms, I’ve been trying lately to bring the idea of social sculpture in line with the new language that’s currently going around called “place-making,” but its not a perfect fit. Beuys talked about social sculpture as the way we shape and mold the world around us and that everyone has to be an artist; I embrace that fully. Place-making is also about shaping the world but people aren’t really invested in the idea that everybody is a place-maker or that everybody has to figure out how to encourage and nurture the creativity in everybody, so that they can all participate as artists, as Beuys said, or as place-makers, as the new place-making field, wants to consider.
Certainly a huge chunk of the identity of PRH is identified with me, which gives me the presence of the author, but in reality I know what it takes to make it happen and it’s not me. That is one of the things that I’ve been trying to do lately is to figure out how to shift the authorship, or the perception of of authorship. I don’t know if this is completely valid to just resign my personal identity as an artist and rope that into the collaborative, collective approach to the work we do here at PRH.
When I work here, as well as when I work in other communities outside of Houston, I play one role within a team of people and I don’t come up with all the “visionary” ideas – there are other people that do that as well. So, I’ve been trying to shift the authorship role and build resources within the framework of the organization so that PRH could be the author and I’m a part of it.
The practical nature of creating a shift like this is really about trying to figure out how to invest in others – and I have to tell you that I’m not the best at it. I have this idea that the way you invest in others is to give them responsibility and room to operate. But there’s another part of it that I’m missing; I know it and I can see it. How do you not only give space and responsibility, or create a situation where there’s space and responsibility and ownership for others, but how do you participate in helping people grapple with being owners in a way that helps make that ownership valuable? So, a big part of what I do and what my work is here at PRH, in theory, is helping people and learning how they help others, including how they help me.
SD: Do you consider critical dialog to be an important experience in and for the Houston arts community and if so, where are you finding that dialogue?
RL: I find that there is a void in critical dialog concerning the arts in general and in Houston, in particular. You know, I’m not surprised that there is a void in Houston because of what I’ve come to know Houston to be — a place of possibility for action, for doing stuff. You can do shit here. Ain’t too much to talk about, just do it. It’s just the identity of the city in general. Not just the arts.
People always ask me if I have any impact on policy. I always tell them that Houston is a different kind of place; it doesn’t set policy from an abstract sense or for policy’s sake. We in Houston know that a certain policy is a good thing, theoretically, but it has to come in a practical form first. Basically, you have to go out and do something and then say that it should be policy. Then we’ll do it. We can’t have policy so that this certain thing would result. It doesn’t happen that way. Here in Houston, we are just more of a doing kind of place.
In terms of critical dialog, I couldn’t tell you how many places I’ve been invited in the last ten years to be in conversation about socially-engaged work, public art, or social practice. I don’t know how often any of those conversations happen in Houston, in the broad public sense. People have those conversations in smaller circles all the time but the intellectual curiosity part of the equation has not reached that kind of critical mass that will ultimately balance it out. So, I’m here in Houston and I choose to get shit done.